There’s No Such Thing as a Black Thumb

By Angelina Williamson

There’s no such thing as a black or green thumb. I’ve never met a gardener who said “I have a green thumb”, because they know that success in gardening isn’t some magical ability one is either born with or not. It’s something you learn as you go along, and never stop learning. People who claim to have a “black thumb” are people who gave up too fast to experience the success they were hoping for or they really never cared that much about growing plants to begin with. They think that because they killed a few plants they lack the talent for growing things.

I have killed off thousands of plants in the eighteen years I’ve been a serious gardener. Certainly I killed more plants as a beginner than I do now, and yet at this very moment my garden is host to: a half dead mimulus, the blackened skeleton of a tulsi plant, a crispy brown hollyhock, a sickly Abraham Darby rose, and the ghosts of fifty other plants that didn’t make it through the wet spring. Losing plants is a normal part of gardening, it’s not evidence of a black thumb.

Angelinas-Garden

Have you tried growing plants but concluded that you just can’t do it? If you got discouraged but still really want to garden, I promise that you can succeed at gardening. You may need to shift how you think about it and approach it, but anyone who truly wants to garden can do it. I want to tell you the truth about gardening. I want to tell you what I’ve learned about growing that may encourage you not to give up yet.

Plants Are Living Beings

To succeed at gardening the most important thing to understand is that plants are living beings. They aren’t inanimate objects. Whether you believe they’re sentient or not isn’t important but you need to know that they have vascular systems, they breathe, they drink, and they eat much like you do. They respond to care similarly too. The more you pay attention to your plants’ needs, the more they’ll thrive. Plants need to become part of your regular routine. You’ve got to notice them in order to keep them alive.

Forget-me-nots

All Gardeners Kill Plants

No matter how experienced you are at gardening there’s a part of you that will always be a novice because everything you learn opens the door to new things to learn. Every garden you work in has different conditions, from broad obvious conditions like light levels to all the things you can’t see like microbes specific to that patch of earth. This means that an experienced gardener can move to a new garden and find that things they used to grow with ease now give them exquisite trouble. This is normal. Learn your garden. Understand that every plant you lose can teach you more about what works and doesn’t work in your peculiar spot of soil. It’s not a pass/fail test. It’s about having the tenacity to keep trying, keep experimenting, and discover what plants thrive where you are, and which ones you have an affinity for. Just remember that you’re going to lose a hell of a lot of plants on your gardening journey.

Plant-Based Bête Noires

For every gardener I’ve ever met there are plants that simply won’t do well for them, regardless of how much special care they give them or how many different gardens they’ve tried to grow them in. Sometimes these are plants that are considered universally easy to grow. So don’t get hung up on what people say “everyone” can grow. You may meet your plant-based bête noire early on in your efforts or after you become very experienced, but at some point you’ll meet a plant you can’t grow that the books tell you is easy. This is normal and I’m not even envious of the very rare gardener this has never happened to.

My plant-based bête noires are basil and asparagus. Note that basil is considered one of the easiest unfussy herbs for beginners to grow. It’s okay, I don’t take it personally. I suspect there’s some understanding I’ve failed to reach with them.

Tomato

Sometimes There’s Nothing You Could Have Done

Sometimes plants you buy were destined to die young long before you brought them home. This is a true story. You need to know this because sometimes a plant’s failure to thrive is already written in its cells. Plants get diseases and fungal infections just like people do. For a beginner it feels like personal failure. No matter how much you care for a plant it suddenly blackens, wilts, and dies and there was nothing you could have done about it. Some ways you can reduce the risk of this is to only buy plants, seeds, and bulbs from companies that are scrupulous about keeping their plant stock virus-free.

Sometimes it isn’t about viruses but about individual unexpected plant traits. Plants, like people, even when grown in the best and most even growing conditions, are all individuals and can respond out of character to the rest of its family. You can grow one hundred of the same cultivar of tomato that’s known to be vigorous, bushy, prolific, and delicious and some of those plants are going to grow up a little straggly and pale, or perhaps have more bitter tasting fruit, or die of bacterial wilt. Sometimes a plant’s individual wild traits will turn out to be a happy discovery like an uncharacteristically vigorous and delicious tomato. This is all just part of the adventure.

Growing a garden is about developing a relationship with an environment and all the life living in it. The better you communicate with it, and the more you listen to it, the better your results will be.

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DIY: Passionflower Tincture for Anxiety and Stress Relief

By Angelina Williamson

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is useful in treating anxiety, insomnia, upset stomach (especially related to stress), and high blood pressure. This plant is considered generally safe for most people for short-term use (no more than a couple of months according to some sources), but if you take any sedatives or other medications, be sure to check with your doctor before taking this tincture to make sure there aren’t any contraindications.

tinctures, tincture bottles, herbal tincture, DIY tincture, passionflower tincture, dried passionflower, passionflower

How to Make Passionflower Tincture:

Fill a pint jar about half full of dried passionflower and then cover it with 80 proof vodka.

The solvent range for optimal extraction of medicinal constituants is between 40-65 percent. Be sure not to use a proof higher than 100 or you may damage the plant’s efficacy.

Label your jar with the date you started this batch and put it somewhere where you won’t forget about it.

Shake it vigorously every day for two to four weeks.

tinctures, tincture bottles, herbal tincture, DIY tincture, passionflower tincture

Shaking it every day is important because it helps break down the cell walls of the plant material.

Next, get a fresh clean jar fitted either with a strainer or (as I’ve done here) with a wide-mouthed funnel fitted with an unbleached coffee filter, and pour the liquid through it. Alternatively, you can use cheese cloth or muslin. Shake the plant material into the filter or cheese cloth and squeeze as much of the liquid out of it as you can.

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Decant your tincture into a dark bottle and label it. Store in a cool dark cupboard to maintain the best quality.

Your tincture is ready to be used in whatever recipe you like! For precise dosing information consult a reliable herbalist for advice, either with a personal consultation or from a trusted book or online source.

Tincture-dropper

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Early Spring Dandelions? Use Them for Salad

By Angelina Williamson

A lot of people associate salad eating with summer. There’s no denying that summer yields fantastic salads, but I’m a big fan of winter and early spring salads too. Here’s one that I made using three things from my (zone 9b) winter garden: mache, flat leaf Italian parsley, and dandelion greens.

I don’t buy many out-of-season vegetables but one exception I make is for hothouse cucumbers. I happened to have one so I included it. Before I tell you how I put this salad together I’d like to list some other great ingredients you might have on hand that make fantastic cold weather salads.

dandelion greens, edible dandelions, edible wild greens, wild dandelion

Great Winter/Early Spring Salad Ingredients

Beans are a fantastic substantial ingredient to include in salads that will help give you the energy and protein you need to get through cold dark days that may or may not include activities such as shoveling snow. My favorite bean to use in salads are navy and cannellini beans which taste essentially the same but cannellinis are larger. Other great beans to include in salads are chick peas (garbanzos), black beans, and kidney beans. But don’t be limited by this list. If you grew your own dried beans, cook them up and try them out in a salad.

When summer vegetables and fruits are out of season there are a lot of other fantastic vegetables and fruits to add to your salads such as roasted: beets, cauliflower, carrots, winter squash (cut in cubes first), celery root, potato, brussels sprouts, and broccoli. Crisp apples, European and Asian pears, grapefruits, and oranges (mandarin or blood oranges are extra wonderful), all work well together.

Some other great ingredients are nuts and seeds (walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, and pepitas), marinated or pickled summer vegetables, dried fruits (cranberries, sour cherries, and tomatoes), and baked tofu.

In my growing zone, late fall to early spring is the best time for growing any greens, especially tender greens. If your winters are too harsh for lettuces, try growing in a cold frame or indoors. But even if the more tender greens don’t happen in your zone until summer, experiment with the heartier greens as your salad base.

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White Bean, Sun Dried Tomato, Kalamata, and Dandelion Salad

  • 3 cups navy beans, cooked
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, sliced
  • 1/2 cup sundried tomatoes, sliced
  • 1/4 cup dandelion greens, julienned
  • 1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, minced
  • 2 tsbp of your favorite vinaigrette

Mix all of the above ingredients together in a bowl and let it sit in the fridge (or covered on your counter) for about a half an hour. You can eat this just as it is or you can add this to a bed of greens (dress the greens with additional vinaigrette) and top it off with feta cheese as I’ve done in the picture above. I happened to have a hothouse cucumber in need of being used up so I decorated the edge of my salad with them.

Dandelion leaves are packed with potassium, vitamins A, C, and B6, as well as iron and magnesium, making them powerhouses of nutrition after winter’s scarcity. Just please remember that if you’re living in a colder zone, dandelion flowers are the first real food of the year for many bees and pollinating species, while the leaves nourish wild rabbits and other mammal friends. If you gather wild dandelions for food, please do so sparingly in order to ensure that others have food too.

Zone 9b – Time to Start Seeds!

By Angelina Williamson

Right now is the perfect time to start seeds indoors in zone 9b. It’s generally recommended that you give most plants about 8 weeks to get big enough to plant outside. If you’re a stickler for planting your vegetables after the last predicted frost date then you still have a couple of weeks to get your seeds started as our last frost date is usually May 1st. I, however, nearly always plant my vegetables in mid-April which is two weeks early. It’s a gamble, but one that has nearly always paid off for me.

Vegetable seeds that must be started indoors in zone 9b:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Eggplants

You can also start summer squash, winter squash, and cucumber seeds indoors but they grow so fast and do really well direct-seeded later in the season that I don’t bother with them. I’ve seen beans and peas in starts too but, again, they tend to do much better being direct sewn that I never start them or buy them in pots. There are some plants I don’t grow here, such as melons, so I can’t say with experience whether they do better started indoors or not.
Other plants you can start now are flowers and herbs for your summer garden.

seedlings-in-paper-cups

Seed-Starting Secrets

I have mixed luck starting seeds indoors but there are three things I’ve found essential to my seed-starting success:

Use sterile seed-starting mix. This ensures that you’re starting off without any viruses or bacterias that can cause your seedlings instant death. I have learned this from sad experience. Don’t plant your indoor seedlings in straight compost either. Unless you’re sure its nitrogen content isn’t too strong, use the sterile seed-starting mix. Seeds have all the nutrients a plant needs to get started, too much nitrogen will burn them and cause them to wilt and die. I’ve made this mistake, it was such a sad time for me seeing all those tiny dead plants.

Find a good light source. You can buy indoor seed-starting lights and as soon as I can afford this I will do it. If you have a very bright south facing window you probably won’t need artificial lights. In my current situation I don’t have great window light for my seedlings. I will probably bring them outside during the day and in at night to get them the extra light they need. If your seedlings grow tall and thin with few leaves it means they aren’t getting adequate light.

There are many containers you can start seeds in but I have only had luck with the ones that have a water-wicking mat that draws water up from a bottom tray into the base of the plant cells. This type of seed-starting tray prevents you from overwatering or under-watering the seeds, both things that can kill off your seedlings. All you have to do is make sure the bottom tray stays full of water.

seed-starting

Starting your own seeds certainly is more work than buying starts in a nursery. I want to say right now that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting your plant starts from a nursery, but there are real benefits with going through the trouble to start your own. The greatest benefit, in my opinion, is that you have a vastly increased number of plant varieties to choose from when you grow from seed. There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes you can grow from seed while most nurseries will carry no more than ten or fifteen. Another benefit is control over what kind of seeds you use. You can choose to use only organic and/or non-GMO seeds if that’s important to you. The last real benefit is that seeds are less expensive than plant starts, even after you factor in sterile soil and specialty pots if you use them.

Here are the seed varieties I put in my seed-starting tray yesterday:

Tomatoes:

Aunt Ruby’s German GreenCaspian PinkRoman CandleOpalka, and Gold Medal.

Eggplants:

Thai Chao PrayaThai Lavender Frog Egg, and Tadifi.

Peppers:

Fish Pepper and Aji Cristal.

I’d love to know what other people are starting from seed this year! What will you be growing? Let us know in the comments section below!